Giant Mutant Tomatoes from Our Space

In retrospect, the fertilizer might not have been a good idea. Over the last few weeks, this summer’s garden plot has become a very scary place. We’ve been overrun by groping vines and in-your-face leaves. Melon sprawl and wall-to-wall carrot carnage. Sweet pea forests. Six-pound marbled orange beefsteaks. Eggplants that grow like Pinocchio’s nose, expanding by the second.

The only thing that’s not getting any bigger is the size of our garden space.

"Giant Mutant Tomatoes from Our Space" by Caryn Caldwell

A specimen from yesterday, pulled up with both hands. In case you thought I was exaggerating. But then, you know me. I never, ever exaggerate.

Give me strength. I fear I may not make it out alive the next time I venture in. Yesterday I barely escaped, stumbling onto the safety of the back patio with just a fistful of dirt-clotted weeds and most of my sanity. Today? Who knows. The lettuce is looking feisty, and the cucumbers have come of age. We may have a real fight on our hands.

Still, someone has to prune the pumpkins before the patch infests the neighborhood, so I’m going in. Soon as I re-tie my shoelaces. And adjust my sunglasses. And gas up the chainsaw. And any other delay tactics I can think of while still looking brave and unhesitant. I hear pumpkins can smell fear. (more…)

Playing with Pixels

Before Sunshine was born, the only portraits I had taken were candids at family gatherings and a few newsy items for my high school paper. Well, plus that one ill-advised attempt at senior portraits, a cheesy set of shots of my best friend leaping over a stream in the woods just before high school graduation. Those never graced the pages of a photo album, let alone our yearbook.

Over the next decade and a half I whipped my camera out for every hiking, rafting, and camping expedition, but the results always made it look as if I went on these jaunts alone because no people ever appeared in the shots. Plenty of flowers and mountains and butterflies and chirping birds, but never, ever nature of the human sort.

Then I had a baby. I traded in my zoom lens for a 50 mm and finally read the manual for my auxiliary flash. Sunshine learned to ignore the camera and my embarrassing attempts to coax her into looking into the lens, while I learned to take portraits. No one who peeks at my hard drive these days can claim that Sunshine is not well-documented.

Here’s the thing about photographs of your baby, though: Even your most die-hard Facebook friends don’t need daily documentation of your child’s every facial expression, and the internet at large probably shouldn’t know that much about your little cherub. But photos are much more fun when shared (just ask a grandma), so I needed an outlet beyond portraits of my kid. And so, after nearly a year and a half serving as Sunshine’s personal paparazzi, my camera lens and I have rediscovered nature. Because the truth is, one subject is no longer enough, no matter how cute she may be.

This isn’t sudden, nor is it unexpected. It happens every time I begin working on a new book. There’s something about writing copiously that brings out the photographer in me, as if playing with photos is the twin of playing with words. Creativity is a funny thing.

If you’re curious, you can find the results on my photoblog, Playing with Pixels, which I finally started back up again. In the meantime, I’ll be outside, taking pictures of nature and Sunshine, in-between jotting down paragraphs for the book I’m working on.

By the way, if you have a photo – or even a photoblog – you want to share, I want to see it! Post the link in the comments. (No more than three links, though, or your comment will be kicked to spam, and we’ll all miss out.)

Carrot Cubes, Green Pea Puree and Other Baby Food Misadventures

These cherries now languish – crushed, mutilated, and wholly untouched – in our freezer.

Somewhere between buying thirty-six cloth diapers for Sunshine and committing to what our local Target calls ‘natural feeding’ (because some people consider ‘breast’ a terrible word) I heard about the wonders of making your own baby food. The magazine article claimed it was Easy! Wholesome! Cheap! Fun! And Totally Not Messy At All! Since I’m into cheap fun, I went for it.

It was not the first time I’ve been lied to by a magazine.

There were hints from the start that life would be easier if I simply opened up a jar of Gerber and shoveled it into Sunshine’s mouth. For one thing, Gerber doesn’t require a blender. But I’m a stay-at-home-mom now, so I feel an obligation to get my inner housewife on. Most of the time that means I toss laundry into the washer a few times a week, make dinner when I feel like it, and sweep the floor on a semi-regular basis. Otherwise, it’s all Sunshine, all the time. Still, girlie and I were lurking about the house anyway, so why not?

The peas came first. I lovingly cut open the bag (because, no, I was not going to hand-shell three hundred sugar snaps, no matter how much I love my daughter), dumped the frozen contents into our electric steamer, and set the timer. Now all I had to do was grind them into baby-safe mush. Easy. I poured a mountain of veggies into the blender, tapped the puree button, and waited for the magic. The engine whirred ineffectually, a burning smell tinged the air, and smoke curled out from under the base. Okay. Fine. Next button. More power. Still, those blades would not move. Hot pea juice fogged up the inside. Sunshine fussed. The Mother of the Year acceptance speech I’d been composing in my head dissolved.

A quick consultation with my father – who’d never made baby food in his life, but does have a knack for dealing with mean machinery – solved the problem. A little water, a little stirring, a little more water…a lot more water. With a groan, the blender finally complied, grinding the peas into an unappetizing neon green sludge.

Giddy with accomplishment, I slid Sunshine into her high chair and served up a big old glop of the stuff. Which, of course, she refused to eat. (Because, you know, who wouldn’t love warm pea mush for lunch?) Undeterred, I spooned the rest into three ice cub trays and froze them in baby-sized portions, as per the instructions in the magazine article, two cook books, and seven websites I had, by now, read on the subject.

Carrots came next, chopped and steamed and blended with a bucket of water, then chilled into little orange cubes. I dished up a mound of the sticky slop. Ick face ensued.

I was desperate for a victory, so when she ate the yams I sent a silent “Take that!” to Gerber and planned my next feat. Luckily, the end-of-summer trees were heavy with fruit. I peeled, sliced, and simmered apples. I halved and roasted hand-picked peaches and apricots, then slipped off the skins. I removed the seeds from so many grape-sized plums that my thumbs hurt for days. And every bit went into our now-compliant blender.

On occasion I trot out one of the cubes, let it melt, and dish it up. Sunshine still likes her peas round and her carrots chopped, but she’ll take a taste if I pretend I don’t care. As for the rest? Wholesome, cheap, and, if you’re fourteen months old, rather tasty.

Introducing The Schnooks

It’s nearly our baby’s 12th weekaversary, and I’m back on the blog. I’d have been here earlier, but I’m too lazy to type one-handed, and since I have our little one in my other hand most of the time (when I’m not at work, that is) that’s my only option these days. And so in lieu of my own hobbies, I’ve been catering to The Schnooks’s. She’s developed an extensive collection in her three months outside the womb, including:

1) Filthifying fresh diapers

2) Conversing with her mobile

3) Using the promise of smiles to coerce adults into making silly faces and ridiculous sound effects

4) Ignoring the cats

5) Getting kicky to music

6) Ogling books ((yay!))

7) Eating ((sumo wrestlers would envy her physique))

Mainly, though, we are her hobby. Whatever we do, she must do it with us, and she must have our undivided attention the entire time. And so we read her piles of silly books full of rhymes and colorful pictures. And we sing rock songs, unplugged and with questionable skill (but plenty of enthusiasm). And, of course, there’s the usual daily maintenance.

But those details can wait. First, a FAQ. After all, I had one when announcing her impending birth, so why not a reprise?

1) You couldn’t possibly have named her The Schnooks, right? Right.

2) You do know that schnooks is unflattering – ‘pitiable and gullible little simpleton’, I believe it means? *Sigh* Yes. Now we know. But we didn’t have a clue when hubby made up the nickname ((or so we thought… )) two days after her birth. We just thought it was a miniature version of schnookums. Which actually isn’t a word, according to my spell check.

3) Stats, please! Here goes: 7 pounds, 8.5 ounces at birth. 20 inches long. 15 hours of labor. Loads of brown hair that defies gravity without the help of gel. And most definitely a girl. At three months she’s in the 50th percentile for weight, 75th for length, 90th for head size, and a whopping 99th for hair circumference. If they measured hair circumference.

4) How’s she sleeping? Maybe I should have put this one first since that seems to be everyone’s number one question these days. The truth is, I’m scared to say, since I don’t want to jinx things. The last time I posted a bragatory status update on Facebook she didn’t sleep for two nights. So I’ll just say…plenty. She’s sleeping plenty. Thank you so much to the gods in charge of sleep cycles, firm mattresses, and alarm clocks, amen.

5) If she’s keeping you so busy, how are you able to blog right now? It’s my new strategy: I wrote most of this long-hand with my writing group, and am pushing my WPM skills to the limit entering this while she takes her (very short ((usually half an hour if we’re lucky. In fact – no kidding – she slept for 33 minutes and is now stretching and eating her hands and staring at me expectantly. Which means that I’m back on baby duty. Why, yes, it is before 9:00 on a Saturday morning and we’ve already been awake long enough for her to play, then get tired, then take her first nap. Before The Schnooks I rarely saw the world beyond my eyelids by this time of day.))) morning nap.

Anything else?

News(!) Plus a F.A.Q.

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Frequently Asked Questions:

1) How are you feeling? Queasy and tired, thanks. And you?

2) How far along are you? 18 weeks. And, yes, still regularly visited by the quease. The second trimester is a myth. So is the “morning” in morning sickness. Just so you know. Oh, and I have to pee. Again.

3) When are you due? February 11 – give or take a few days. Yes, a Valentine’s baby. No, Cupid and Valentine are not naming options.

4) Okay, so are there any names that you do want to use? Yes.

5) Well, what are they? A surprise. They are a surprise. They are also subject to change. We’ll announce in February.

6) Girl or boy? Yes, we hope so. Oh, you mean, which one? We’ll know in a few weeks, but we have some preliminary results. We’re just waiting for backup to know for certain. Don’t want to announce one and have it turn out to be the other after all.

7) So you’re going to find out? Yup. That’s the plan. I never was big on surprises.

8) Will you tell us? If you ask nicely. I’ll probably announce it on Twitter and Facebook first.

9) Is this your first? Yes. Otherwise you’d probably have seen me mention other children a time or two.

10) So is this why you haven’t written in a while? Or, visited my blog? (Not to sound pouty, but…) Yeah, among other things. Like the flu (which is no fun without Dayquil, let me tell you). And multiple internet outages (still). And a very busy time at work.

The Summer of the Flower Explosion

I am not a girly-girl. I’ve never treated myself to a manicure, I have less interest in shoes than most men, and my blow dryer last saw action several months ago when I removed one those flashy stickers some companies like to plaster all over their products. And yet.

And yet I am all about rainbows and butterflies and chirping birds and, yes, flowers. Not on t-shirts or binders or anything plastic and decorative, you understand. Just in reality, in this dimension.

Which is why I’m loving this summer so very much. Flowers are everywhere, blatantly growing and spreading and blooming. Three volunteer rosebushes sprouted in my vegetable garden, globe mallows are sweeping up and down the hillsides, and wild irises are grinning like lunatics in the mountain sunshine. It’s an obscene rainbow of blossoms carpeting everything outside of town except the rocks and asphalt. It’s like the Disney Channel, except no princesses.

What’s great about flowers, beyond the fact that they are nice-looking and they usually smell good and they stand still when I try to take pictures of them, is that they make no pretense whatsoever. They are all about the pollination, their petals and perfumes and colors brashly yelling, “Come and get it!” to any passing insects. It’s hard not to admire such honesty, especially when packaged so prettily.

Alas (if one can use such a word in 2009) this year the ridiculous abundance that overtook the local flowership completely skipped every fruit tree I know and love. Our neighbor’s apricot, which hangs halfway into our backyard, always produces enough to make any self-respecting fruit-lover sick to her stomach. This year, though? Only leaves. The plum tree? Nothing. Peaches? Not a one.

Only the Bing cherry in our front yard deigned to bring forth anything remotely edible – lots and lots of gorgeous cherries, swinging merrily in the early summer breeze. No doubt they were delicious, too. I wouldn’t actually know, you see, since the birds cleaned off the branches exactly one day before I planned my harvest. They did look yummy, though, plump and juicy and deep, sweet red.

Hrm. Now that I think about it, I take back what I said above about liking birds. Greedy little suckers. Flowers, though. Those I still adore. And rainbows and butterflies, of course. And once our trees start making fruit the way God and the garden center that sold them intended, I’m sure I’ll start liking them again, too. Check back next July, and I’ll let you know.

Obligatory flower photo. This one's in our front yard.

Obligatory flower photo. This one’s in our front yard.

On the “Lite” Side

I bought a tub of cottage cheese the other day, which means my weight loss plan finally has a chance of working. I never would have made the connection, except the other night hubby and I were in a restaurant and, while I was trying to decide which delectably greasy item to order, guilt nudged me toward the “On the Lite Side”(sic) portion of the menu. You know, all that heart-healthy, tasteless crap they dish up just so they can say they cater to everyone. It was there that I saw the key to effortless weight loss. It’s a trick that all restaurants seem to know, yet women’s magazines still have not picked up on: eat cottage cheese. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, according to menus across the country, one scoop of cottage cheese is all you need in order to stay healthy and lose weight, no matter what accompanies those blessed curds. And the good news is, all restaurant diet plates come with it, so you’ll never be without this magic gut-shrinking agent. And to think, you’ve been lied to all this time: Dieting is not about the portion size, the fat content, or even those now-meaningless calories (or kilocalories for those sticklers out there).

Skeptical? Itching for more specific proof than “every restaurant’s doing it”? Fine, then. Just witness this listing under the diet section of the restaurant menu mentioned above: ½ lb. ground top sirloin with a side of peaches and cottage cheese. And, no, I swear to you I’m not making this up. In fact, I just called the restaurant to verify, in case it was actually supposed to read “Mixed salad greens tossed in a light vinaigrette dressing, accompanied by a side of steamed broccoli and a dish of low fat cottage cheese”.

Since all evidence points to syrupy canned peaches, and we all know a whopping ½ lb. serving of beef doesn’t fit into traditional heart-healthy parameters, it must be the cottage cheese that makes this dinner choice “lite”. Which is the reason I had no worries about the contents of my plate at a family barbeque I attended on Saturday. All I had to do was add a spoonful of the miraculous side dish, and I could eat whatever I wanted. In fact, when I weighed myself that night, I had actually lost weight. It’s a miracle.

dietplate

My kind of diet: Cheeseburger, baked beans, brownie and, of course, cottage cheese (which makes it all good for me).

Rattled

“There’s a rattlesnake up ahead,” the man said, eying the camera I’d slung around my neck before I set off on my hike. “Just thought you’d want to know.”

“Really?” Wow. That hadn’t taken long. I’d been in Tucson about four hours, and already people were warning me about snakes. I adjusted the brim of my baseball cap so it blocked the afternoon sun, then tugged one of the straps of my backpack, sliding it off my shoulder. “I’d better change lenses, then. Where is it?”

The man’s wife grinned in understanding, her eyes mirroring the enthusiasm that must have been in my own, while the guy half-turned away from me and gestured up the narrow gravel path. “Up there about a hundred feet. On the left.”

I thanked them and nodded goodbye as they passed, then dug my telephoto out of my day pack, which was now hanging from the crook of my arm. I pushed my discarded lens into a thick sock to protect it, then gently rolled it into the bag.

Camera clutched in my hands tourist-style, I crept along the trail, alert for any movement, heart hammering in a rhythm that was half nervousness, half excitement. I passed several statuesque saguaro, then a cactus flower blooming a cheerful hot pink in the April sunshine, and made a mental note of both. I’d come back after I found the snake.

Only, there was no snake. I went my hundred feet, more, and…nothing. Disappointed at missing such an opportunity, I changed to my macro lens (for closeups) and strode back to the flower I’d seen. At least it had stayed put for me, posing prettily all the while.

Once on the trail again, I paused often for pictures. One such stop required a few illicit steps off the path, but the flowers were worth it. And just ten to fifteen feet further were more, clusters of huge lavender thistles and delicate cactus blossoms.

Already planning how best to photograph the flowers, I picked my way through the shrubs and rocks, then stopped short — three steps from a Western diamondback. It was coiled behind a paddle cactus, its tail hidden and silenced, its slitted eyes watching me warily.

Adrenaline washed through my paralyzed body in a cold tide. A cacophony of unprintable words screamed in my mind. Slowly, steadily, keeping one eye on the snake, I backed up, foot by careful foot.

Around a bend and out of sight I slid my pack off my shoulders, pulled it open with trembling fingers, and located my telephoto lens.

Pit viper or not, that snake was mine.

Excitement, fear, adrenaline — something had my hands quaking so violently I knew I’d never get a clear shot without help, so I yanked my tripod out next, opened it at top speed, and fastened my camera into place. I lowered the pack to the ground and swiveled back toward the bushes where the snake hid, then slunk forward, hoping that the rattler hadn’t fled, that I was not too late.

It hadn’t, and I wasn’t.

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Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Click here or on picture for larger image.

A Warning

Dear Spring:

We would like to thank you for your continued years of faithful service. Your performance has been unfailingly cheerful and, at the risk of sounding politically incorrect, your grooming beautifies the place.

However, it has come to our attention that your lack of consistency has caused a number of problems, especially in the areas of production and public relations. This has resulted in considerable delays in crops, such as those illustrated below, as well as dropping customer approval ratings. As a result, the board has determined that you shall be subjected to a probationary period, which will last no less than one half decade and no longer than one century. This is effective immediately. This has been a difficult decision, made with heavy hearts, but in the end we must ensure that all seasons, fronts and spells we oversee best represent the Weather Oversight Board, as well as the weather in general.

In order to receive full reinstatement of your powers, you must agree to and meet with the following requirements:

1) March shall no longer “come in like a lion”. It shall be a lamb throughout. Leonine behavior is merely an excuse for spotty service, and shall no longer be tolerated.

2) Once the flowers arrive, you do, too. This means no more frost, and most certainly no more snow. You may exercise your powers to the point of providing brisk breezes and occasional hail; more extreme weather is limited to those who control winter and, in some cases, late autumn. If you wish, you may request a transfer to either of these departments.

3) Blatant favoritism shall be considered inappropriate and grounds for immediate dismissal. This refers specifically to your habit of providing certain areas of the country with balmy, late-spring weather while other parts are mired in temperatures befitting mid-January.

As you are aware, we encourage communication between members of the Weather Oversight Board and those seasons, fronts, and spells we oversee. For this reason, if you have any questions during or after this probationary period, we encourage you to contact us.

Once again, we would like to thank you for your continued service.

Sincerely,

Jack M. Frost
President, Weather Oversight Board

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Third Annual Crocus Post

Around the middle of July, when the sidewalks sizzle and the sun scorches, I begin to fantasize about winter. Ah, the crisp, cold air! The pretty swirling snowflakes! The hot chocolate and baths and cozy evening fires!

It takes exactly one snowfall before my naiveté dissolves and memories of past winters rush in. From that moment on, I long for spring to come again.

In our area, hints of the changing seasons can appear as early as late January: bickering birds, a breeze whose arctic bite is more of a nibble, and — my favorite — the unfolding of flowers. This year the flowers held out on us, popping up well into February. Finally, a week ago the delicate creations below poked through our dry, winter-brown grass and opened up to the sun. While we’re not ready to break out the shorts and sandals, I’m already helping winter pack its bags and hinting that it should hit the road before rush hour clogs the interstate.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to enjoy whatever springly attributes this month has brought. And so on Saturday morning, the first bright, clear day since the crocuses’ appearance, I carted my camera and my new tripod (the latter courtesy of my brother and sis-in-law) into the yard and let loose. Recorded now for posterity – or at least the extent of this digital age – are this year’s first flowers. Click on the photos for larger renditions in more detail. Trust me; they look much better that way. ((If you like these, check out my photoblog, Playing with Pixels, at http://www.caryncaldwell.com/photos!))

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